Debate: Do GM crops have an unfair reputation?

Written by Yes: Roger Williams; No: Michael Meacher on 20 August 2010 in Opinion
Yes, says Lib Dem MP Roger Williams, a section in the media is being selective in reporting sensationalised figures to scare people away from GM crops.

Yes, says Lib Dem MP Roger Williams, a section in the media is being selective in reporting sensationalised figures to scare people away from GM crops. No, says Labour MP Michael Meacher, the arguments against GM are significant and compelling

Roger Williams says YesGlobal food security is an increasingly pressing concern for nations around the world, particularly, but not solely, developing ones. The global population is 6.8 billion and expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Climate change will lead to more heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather conditions. It is therefore essential that all possible solutions to this issue are considered and that includes GM.

The EU has now re-nationalised the rights of member states to determine whether to grow GM crops, while retaining the responsibility for determining crop safety, and this should go someway to allaying public fears about GM. But there is widespread concern that GM is both ethically wrong and generally inefficient in terms of maintaining crop yields for dealing with this problem.

Two particular GM crops are often cited as part of this argument. The first is the Amflora potato produced by BASF, which has been bred for industrial use, in particular as a thickening agent for products such as paint and concrete. The purpose of modifying it is that normal potatoes contain a mix of starches, some of which are suited to industrial use and others that are not. BASF, the company in question, are therefore modifying the potato to ensure that the starches most suitable for use as thickening agents are more prevalent in the potatoes. While this benefits the manufacturing industry, from a food point of view it makes the potato a very tough and low quality food product. Even if it were available as a food product, you almost certainly would not want to eat it, even if you weren't concerned about the safety of GM technology. This product has undergone over 12 years of testing, which led to the EU permitting the use of the product.

I believe that if a particular variety of GM crop is judged to be safe against environmental and food safety criteria, then farmers should be able to choose whether or not to use it. In such circumstances it is also vital that sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent the farmer's individual decision to use a GM crop from hampering or harming another producer's production of non-GM or organic crops. As yet the UK does not have in place regulations for preventing the contamination of non-GM crops by GM varieties. These would have to be put in place before any commercial growth could occur.

The second crop is Bt Cotton, that has received much criticism for its use in India and been blamed for a rise in farmer suicides. Clearly the state of Indian farming was not good before the introduction of GM crops. In fact part of the reason that Indian farmers have chosen to use GM crops is the difficulty in growing non-GM products in many areas. It has been claimed that a high number of suicides of Indian farmers has arisen from a switch to GM. This seems to ignore the difficulties that have been prevalent in Indian farming for many years and the present difficult economic conditions across the world.

It seems that there is a section in the media that is totally opposed to the use of GM technology for food production and that they are being very selective in reporting sensationalised figures and anecdotes to scare people away from GM crops. The reality in India is that a recent survey of cotton farmers by IMRB International (formerly known as the Indian Market Research Bureau) showed a 118 per cent increase in profit for farmers planting Bt varieties over traditional cotton. The same survey showed a 64 per cent increase in yield and a 25 per cent reduction in pesticide costs. If crops fail then it is likely to be due to a mismatch between the agronomic conditions and the crops used and that will be the case whether they are GM or not.

Clearly GM crops are not the only solution to food security but they must be considered as part of a wider plan to address this issue. There is now a need for sound scientific research on GM crops and their impact on both non-GM crops in terms of cross-contamination and their effect on humans who consume them. Biotechnology companies have become dirty words in many circles, yet there is little actual proof that they are the monsters they are made out to be. It is time for a number of comprehensive studies so that all myths can be laid to rest and the rising demand for food can finally be tackled head-on.

Michael Meacher says NoGM: Frankenstein food or crops to save the world? Three arguments are normally made in favour of genetic modification of our food. It is a more efficient and focused scientific technology than traditional cross-breeding. It produces higher crop yields and uses less pesticide to the benefit of the environment. And as world population rises from 6.8 billion now to 9-10 billion by 2050, GM is needed to feed the world, especially in developing countries. All three arguments are demonstrably false.

It is certainly not a more efficient form of traditional cross-breeding, but rather a qualitatively different and risky technology which can cross the species barrier, which nature would never do.

Blasting GM DNA into a plant arbitrarily and out of a sequence of genes that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years, in a manner aimed to optimise the functioning of an organism, is risky and unpredictable, and bound to destabilise the biochemistry of the plant.

There is evidence from Canada and Argentina that initially yields increased with GM and pesticide use fell.However, Charles Benbrook, an independent US scientist formerly of the US Department of Agriculture, carried out a series of systematic studies that showed that over a five-year period, yields began to fall and pesticide use markedly increased to counter the proliferation of volunteers and superweeds.

On countering world hunger, GM's role is marginal to the point of invisibility. Genetic modification may enable some plants to grow in more saline or arid soils, which is useful, but in terms of feeding the world, GM is irrelevant.

While the arguments in favour of GM are clearly not valid, the arguments against it are significant and compelling. There have never been, either in the UK or anywhere in the world, adequate or systematic tests of the impact of GM crops on human health or the environment. The FSE trials in the UK were extremely narrow, being limited purely to assessing the effects of using different herbicides (or chemical weed-killers) as between GM and non-GM crops. There have been no tests whatsoever on the much more important issues of long-term soil pollution, transgene flow (carrying contamination to neighbouring fields), the very difficult problem of superweeds, or on the environmental impacts if crop yield profiteering were maximised.

Worse still, virtually no direct testing has been done of the effects of GM foods on human health. The doctrine of ‘substantial equivalence' has been used by the biotech companies to avoid independent research. They compare a new GM product with its non-GM counterpart in terms of toxins, nutrients and allergens by saying they're "broadly similar", and then ‘deem' the GM product is safe. This is a scam, like comparing a cow with BSE with a healthy cow and then claiming they're substantially equivalent.

What very limited studies there have been of the health impacts are very worrying. In a sample group at Newcastle University who were fed a single meal of GM soya, it was found that, contrary to expectation, the GM DNA had survived almost intact and transferred to the gut bacteria; that is dangerous because it could compromise antibiotic resistance.

A Hungarian scientist, Pusztai, found that GM potatoes with snowdrop lectin damaged every organ system in rats, and in particular their stomach lining thickened, which is often a precursor of cancer. A dozen dairy cows all died on a farm in Hesse in Germany after eating Syngenta Bt 176 GM maize. What is mostworrying about all these examples (and there are several others) is that none of these results, while regularly being rubbished by the biotech establishment, were ever followed up with further tests to confirm or refute the original findings.

Another major unresolved, and irresolvable, problem is the severe cross-contamination of nearby conventional or organic crops by GM pollen. No separation distance, however large, can wholly prevent this, as pollen seeds can be blown miles on a windy day. Yet there is no statutory liability provision in place, or planned, to protect non-GM crops from being contaminated. Do we really want to license GM crops which nobody wants at the expense of organic crops that people do want and where the market is growing fast.

Who then wants food to be genetically modified when it is perfectly desirable and healthy as it is? The answer is Monsanto and the other huge multinational agri-businesses that stand to make a killing if they can corner the world's food supply and subject it to patents which they can monopolise, and thus extract a profit, bonanza which would put even the oil companies in the shade.

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